LOS ANGELES, California—For many, one of the first things that comes to mind when they think of LA is Disneyland. Y’know, that wonderful, majestic place where all the NFLers go after they win their first Super Bowl Championship? Where the streets may as well be paved with gold bars, considering the vast empire the theme park’s “Disney” namesake has amassed over the years?
With the exception of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the new-ish Cars exhibit, though, there isn’t much there for the car-lover.
Which meant there was a gap, then, a hole just filled by Porsche, which mid-November opened up a theme park of their own, the Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles (PECLA). Only this time, swap the football players and the kiddies waiting in line for rides for Porsche owners, prospective Porsche customers, or just general automotive enthusiasts.
After getting a sneak preview the day before the complex opens November 15, we found there’s plenty at the Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles for those types. Plenty indeed.
Welcome to Porsche country
To be precise, the PECLA is actually 30 minutes out of town in Carson, California, population: 100,000. Having said that, the Center’s placement is such that 300,000 cars will pass by it every day, and Porsche is banking on a lot of those 300,000 pulling over and having a look.
It’s the fifth such facility worldwide, and the second to be built in North America. Atlanta – home of Porsche’s North American HQ – got one in May of 2015. This one, however, is the bigger and better version, so much bigger and better that Porsche is expecting 50,000 visitors a year; 42,000 have made their way to the Atlanta complex since it opened last year. Considering the volume of Porsches in California, that 50,000 figure almost seems modest.
“If California were its own country,” said Klaus Zellmer, president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, “it would be Porsche’s fifth-largest market in the world.” Add the fact that the Porsche Club of America and its 150,000 members is based here, and you can see why Porsche – and the city of Carson – are tickled pink by The Experience’s arrival.
“We are ecstatic that The Porsche Experience calls Carson its home,” said the town’s mayor, Albert Robles, on-hand at our sneak preview. “We anticipate this facility will be a catalyst for more development in the area.”
That’s great for him and his town; we, of course, were wondering how PECLA could be the catalyst to turn people from simple car lovers into car fanatics.
Showing off what we’ve got
It would be hard to resist such a change after paying a visit to PECLA. As you might expect, the show starts with the parking lot out front; Porsches of all stripes seem to fill every second stall, and while I’m sure plenty of that has to do with the grand opening, I’m equally sure it wouldn’t be any different on any given day.
What could very well be different on any given day is what greets you as soon as you enter the main building. The immediate right-hand side features a gift shop, which is nice, but it’s what you see as you continue on that’s truly awe-inspiring.
During our visit, there sat a version of that bastion of all Golden Age Porsche racing cars, the 917K. Finished in the powder-blue-and-orange Gulf Oil livery made oh-so-famous in the 1971 Steve McQueen flick Le Mans, it was recently restored at the facility, and is part of a display that regularly gets updated with selections from the Porsche Museum’s catalogue.
Keep going past static displays of the manic GT3 RS on your right and the exceedingly rare 911R on your left, and floor-to-ceiling windows provide a look at one of the PECLA’s main services: the restoration and maintenance of classic Porsche customer cars, as well as current race cars such as the 911 GT3 R and Cup Cars.
If they need an engine rebuild – and the GT3 Cup rulebook stipulates they do, every season – it has to be done here. Even if the teams have their own perfectly capable garages and mechanic teams, they have to go to PECLA to get the engine re-builds done. That way, scrutineers can be sure the GT3 Cup Cars (or, indeed, the Pirelli World Challenge GT3 R cars), are built legally and to-spec.
According to Jens Walther, president and CEO of Porsche Motorsport North America, they’re expecting 100 engine re-builds and 50 gearbox re-builds per year.
That’s all well and good if you happen to have the wherewithal to run in these championships; what’s really cool for the more casual visitor is what sits at the front of the spic-n-span garage floor: old, restored race cars that actually belong to Porsche customers.
For our visit, a contemporary RS Spyder prototype – all DHL-delivery-service-yellow-and-red of it – was featured, as well as a Dauer 962 racer, a third-party road-to-track conversion representing the last car with any connection to the 962 platform to win at Le Mans, capping off over a decade of success at the legendary endurance event.
Like the products sourced from the museum, however, the cars stored there tend to change as well, as there’s only room for seven at any given time. We’re lucky, then, that these legendary racers aren’t sitting in closed-door collections. Why aren’t they hidden? The answer, according to Walther, is simple. “Unlike other countries, in the US, we like to show off what we have!”
Slipping, sliding, and driving the ’Ring
Of course, if you’d rather show off your driving skills than show off your car, there’s plenty of opportunity to do that here, too.
It starts in the virtual sense with a bank of racing simulators, for use at the cost of $60 US for one hour, $35 US for a half-hour; during our visit, they were running the Assetto Corsa video game, a realistic take on sports car racing that just recently had a batch of Porsches added to its roster.
You can pick from a star-studded roster of cars – from the current Cayman to the fire-breathing 917/30 Can-Am car – on a variety of legendary tracks such as Road Atlanta, Monza or the Nurburgring North Loop, or “Nordschleife.”
Speaking of the Nurburgring Nordschleife: once you’ve had your fill of virtually piloting some of Stuttgart’s finest, you’ll want to head out to the 53-acre track facility. There’s a low-grip course, one that mimics a winding mountain road and an acceleration loop, which features at the end of its long straight a replica of the ’Ring’s famous Karusell corner, complete with 33-degree banking.
How perfect of a replica is it? Well, according to my instructor for the day, when people that know the ’Ring well sampled an early version of the PECLA’s rendering, they said it wasn’t quite banked enough. Porsche listened, and adjusted it accordingly.
It’s a good thing they did; believe me when I say you have no idea how steep 33 degrees feels in a 2017 Porsche 911 Carrera S until you’ve actually done it. Surreal, it is, especially when your instructor is telling you to go faster because the steep banking allows for it.
After that, your 90-minute session – that’s the standard on-track course length, which ranges in price from $385 to $950 US, depending on the car you choose – takes you to a course that mimics an icy downhill road. It’s your chance to do your best to get the car’s rear end unsettled, and try to hold your slide as you make your way down the course. Don’t worry—super-sticky kerbs return instant traction to ensure you don’t have an off, and the point is to teach you what to do once you hit hidden black ice.
There’s also a greasy skidpad, where you can challenge yourself to keep the car sliding for an entire rotation—at 10 mph. It’s a lot harder than it looks. I’ve attended Porsche’s Camp4 winter driving academy where you’re given time on a snowed-in skidpad; a full turn of PECLA’s oiled frying pan was actually harder to do.
Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s a handling course that takes place completely on polished concrete, which looks wet and feels like it is.
An experience without equal
Of course, Porsche would have a hard time building crazy cars like the 918 Hybrid and crazy facilities like this if it wasn’t for the sales of their massively popular SUVs, so they can’t be forgotten about.
In that light, a full complement of off-road challenges is also offered, which test the four-wheeling mettle of the Cayenne and Macan on 70-degree gravel descents – yay, hill descent control! – chassis-twisting elephant tracks; and an actual teeter-totter for cars. It’s exactly as you’d picture it.
The cars mentioned represent only a fraction of what’s on offer to drive; in addition to the SUVs and 911s, even crazier stuff like the Cayman GT4, 911 GT3 RS, and Turbo are also part of PECLA’s fleet. There is something for any stripe of car enthusiast. There really is.
Indeed, all that activity is going to leave you a mite peckish, meaning a stop at one of two eateries – appropriately called the 917 Restaurant and the Speedster Café – is in order. The latter gives you muffins and coffee; the former, a full bar and bistro. Try the surf ’n’ turf, made with fresh fish caught locally. Amazing stuff.
And not just the surf ’n’ turf—try everything! There aren’t many other places out there that provide a car experience like this. Add the fact there’s some real, hardcore racing stuff making up the backdrop of what’s going on at PECLA, and you have a hands-on vehicular utopia I don’t think can be equalled anywhere.